Sundays were always marked by trips to Michael’s Crafts and Supplies Store. As the son to an unchecked, sprucely crafty mother, our errand excursions seemed to leave us at discount fabric shops perusing through layers of silks, searching for patterns with defined paisleys, more often than at our local marketplaces, purchasing groceries for our perpetually destitute food pantry. And unlike most boys I spotted with their coddling mommies at the artful megastore, who seemed to be cranky and only interested in the store’s Cartoon Network poster selections, I was rapt by the ongoing aisles of ignored crafting projects waiting to be slipped into my “Mommy! Look what I kind of made!” hands.
For as long as I can remember, Michael’s was the one destination where I felt comfortable exploring creativity. Inside, congregating older women of various backgrounds altered the landscape by importunely whipping out their crafting tools and continuing work on their developing projects without inklings of shame or embarrassment. I’d get lost and separated from my mother in the hour-long lapses of time we spent within the store’s moldy, congested four walls. Occasionally we would reunite, and my mother would find me sported with a finished craft, in-hand, thanks to the gentle instruction and assistance of the store’s wackily commonplace vagabonds. These crafting overlords, who never feared opening products without buying them or desired compensation after teaching me methods of crafting, encouraged unruly acts while promoting a sense of public unapologetic artistic endeavor.
Frolicking through the aisles of yarn and unpainted birdhouses struck me to stillness—these moments were highs induced by straining loose fabrics uninvitingly prompted into my mouth. It’s idiotic to spew, but when juxtaposed next to these stacks of Martha Stewart and Lion Brand collections of yarn, I felt limitless—a wildly free gay 10-year-old up to no good.
Hello shoppers: Annoying and literally biting gaunt boy in aisle 7. Owner, where are you?
This was a rare feeling. Being a lunchroom loner-type kid, I rarely felt moments of inclusion in public spaces. Ms. Fitzpatrick, my awfully proud Irish-Catholic fifth grade teacher who dedicated her life to our school’s tattering parish, pulled my mother aside after a PTA meeting, insisting she help jolt me out of my shyness so the other boys would more actively welcome me into their circles. I hadn’t wanted to adjust socially, and my mother was aware of my indignant stance on forced mingling. Still, nothing made my mother – and consequentially myself – more upset than someone deeming me “shy” or “too quiet.”
These classifications, at least to single pubic haired, prepubescent Ken, meant he was unthinkably strange. Perhaps not as odd as the neighborhood girl who was a selective mute and suffered from sporadic, heavy nose bleeds, but getting there — that was without doubt.
“Where I’m from, people don’t have anxieties,” Marcello reiterated for a second time as we waited on our table at Serendipities to be cleared. “People have pregnancies and STDs they never wanted. That’s some American bullshit, if you ask me.”
No one asked him, but being from Argentina, my uncle’s partner always had something to say about the sweeping stupidity of Americans, which he felt, overloaded his life as a hairdresser on the Upper West Side. This time, the stupidity was surrounding the doctor who had diagnosed my wheezing existence with a mild anxiety disorder. My mother hadn’t known how to respond to Marcello without getting defensive; so, instead, she gripped my hand like a sprawling snake as we proceeded towards our decadent entrees: $16 mugs drowning in frozen hot chocolate.
Billy and Marcello had been together since I was born, and their relationship as Equinox-obsessed gays never seemed the slightest bit revolting to my adolescent eyes. This was mainly in part to the two’s commitment to never show affection to one another in public and my family’s refusal to recognize them as anything more than friends. But, they didn’t have to spill the tea for the memo to leak. Enter their Chelsea studio apartment and you’re welcomed with a barrage of rainbow flags and an altar to Cher. I don’t think as a 10-year-old I knew what sexuality was, but I knew Billy and Marcello were outside of the term’s norm. And being that “If I Could Turn Back Time” was on every mixed tape I burned, I knew I probably fell outside of that norm’s perimeters too.
When my suspicions concerning my uncles’ alleged deviant sexuality flooded my psyche, I poured all my ringing thoughts to my confused and adamantly defiant brother, Tim. He hadn’t believed me, and visibly became upset over the possibility of having an actively queer family member. If those angry weirdos we learned in scripture class were in our immediate family, what does that mean about us, in general?
“No,” he firmly vouched. “Billy doesn’t kiss Marcello! They’re just roommates.”
“They sleep in the same bed,” I reminded my brother as we sat outside their bustling corner bodega as our mother bought a pack of Marlboros 27s. “They’re totally gay!”
He looked off disgruntledly, seemingly on the verge of tears, and turned away. Mom quickly returned to our sides and we trekked back over a few avenues to the one spot where we were able to find free parking on a Saturday. Tim remained silent for the majority of the trip home, speaking up only once, begging that one of us upfront raise the volume to P!nk’s pointed middle finger 2001 hit “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” His swinging vocals drowned the thoughts tumbling through my mind. The questions were seated at the tip of my tongue, and I knew my mother had the answers.
Nothing made sense. These questions were pointless without the guts to pose them formally. Every hope laid in the oblivious, yet always curious mind of Tim. He could ask, and with the right amount of persuasion, he would.
When I stumbled my way downstairs the following morning, my mother had been wrapped in a cheetah plush throw while sipping from her morning chocolate milk. With the circulations before her and selected coupons already clipped, I knew we were headed to Michaels.
Stress levels rise. Review the game plan. You can ask her about Billy another time. Don’t sweat it. Stop sweating. Allude to the question casually as you part ways in the paint section. You tense up tremendously. You might faint or poop your pants. Forget it.
“Get your brother,” she commanded me while seamlessly applying mascara through a bronze mirrored tin. “He’s still asleep, but needs to come with us to get a new jock strap. Lord knows he needs to try that on before I just assume his size incorrectly, again.”
Golden. Like that, she came and peeled off all my anxieties like an orange. Just kidding! I was still dying. The identity of my uncle, at the time, felt like my own. If I could out him, he could potentially help me transform into a meaty, ultra-masculine man worth fucking one day. He did it somehow; I saw the Polaroid images of his scrawny physique from the early 1980s, sporting permed hair and ill-fitting clothes. It was possible, and Tim was the only person seemingly capable of clearing those foggy waters of sexuality for both our mysterious uncle and myself. Do or die. He needed to ask; it was the only way.
Entering Michaels felt different that day; it was no longer a safer space. My elderly friends were all absent, and unfamiliar faces inhabited the aisles that once were exclusively sashayed through by our borough’s oldest and finest.
Tim was aloof, and giddy over his newly attained protective cup that would keep his perpetually endangered balls safe during a dynamic game of soccer played out by dangerous, crotch-aiming fourth graders. We spoke about confronting our mother on Billy’s sexuality as we scrambled through Yankee jerseys in Dick’s Sporting Goods. Immediately troubled by the subject, he manifested his anger by throwing stacks of meticulously folded Jeter gear against the wall, eventually begging me to quit hassling him.
My constant bickering on the compulsory (and very urgent) outing of my uncle started to look obscene. I began questioning why I actually cared so much about Billy’s sexual preference and less about his actual character. It’s not like I fantasized about his shared intimate moments with Marcello or necessarily felt lied to over the secrecy of my uncle’s partnered life. There was just a zinging pull from the bottom of my aching spine needing to normalize an identity with a really real and present face.
I slowly began removing myself from the cause, and imagined P!nk singing to me, “It’s bad when you annoy yourself so irritating / Don’t wanna be my friend no more / I wanna be somebody else.” P!nk wasn’t lying about the hate-me-love-me feels one gets when your gleaming, but 90210 fake façade is turned upside and thrown out the window.
My mother had taken note of my rather stinky attitude and strenuously tried to brighten the mood with tempting, over-the-top crafting items including the latest Color Wonder Toolkit and a Toy Story Play-Doh Playset. I rejected the gifts with a simple swing of my head. The exaggerated discomfort I displayed struck her heavily — this is what the doctor warned her off. Don’t ask him too many questions. On a scale from 1 to 10, how uncomfortable does he look? Think of what could have triggered him. This is not your fault. Do you think it’s your fault? It’s not your fault. Guess again.
Concerned and disoriented, my mother took to questioning Tim. Somewhere in between the makeshift toy section and the water fountain, she hounded him till he spoke. Refusing to speak until I showed face, Tim grasped onto my hand and spoke the unthinkable.
“Mom,” he whimpered out. “Is Uncle Billy gay?”
Reverting her eyes back to the racks of items for 60 percent off, she blankly stated, “Yes.” After taking a moment to readily organize her shopping cart stuffed with coloring books and cutout images of leprechauns, she bent down to our level to stare us deeply in the eyes, and said,
Looking at my brother when she referred to the heterosexual pairing and at me when OK-ing the homo relationship, the exchange felt like the first of many indirect coming outs.
Still, I wasn’t entirely sold on the queer lifestyle. I wanted to fit into the picture-perfect mold my surroundings dictated to be laced with thriving futures: three children, a home outside the city, a time-share in Florida, and a career with an extensive 401(k) plan. Getting with a man who studied sculpture, exclusively listened to post-punk bands, and enjoyed brunch spots with unlimited mimosas didn’t seem to be appearing within my expected future’s forecast. My mother always watched me, observed my liking of certain boys, and knew I was queer AF.
It was all falling apart, but in the best way possible.